Human rights groups lead chorus of alarm over new Trump administration commission

A trio of letters sent Tuesday voice concern over the administration's new Commission on Unalienable Rights.
Image: Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a press conference at an international counterterrorism conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 19, 2019.Natacha Pisarenko / Pool via AP

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By Josh Lederman and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — Prominent human rights organizations, presidential candidates, Democratic senators and religious leaders are sounding the alarm over the Trump administration’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights.

A trio of letters sent Tuesday to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and obtained by NBC News, accuse the State Department of sidelining rights of women and the LGBTQ community in favor of religious liberty.

Pompeo launched the commission earlier this month, saying it would “provide fresh thinking” about returning the government’s focus to promoting “natural law and natural rights.” Human rights groups fear that’s code for ending or limiting U.S. advocacy abroad for marginalized groups.

One letter being sent Tuesday by more than 180 rights groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Disability Rights and the Anti-Defamation League — demands that the commission be abolished. The groups say the commission is being overseen by clergy and scholars “known for extreme positions opposing LGBTQI and reproductive rights," including some who they say have defended “indefensible human rights violations.”

“We urge you to immediately disband this body,” the groups write. Instead, they implore Pompeo to “focus your personal attention on the significant challenges currently facing the protection of human rights globally.”

At the same time, 22 U.S. senators — almost half of the Democrats in the upper chamber — are pushing back on the suggestion “that there is any ‘confusion’ over what human rights are.” In their letter to Pompeo on Tuesday, the Democrats call that “simply an Orwellian twist to defend the indefensible.”

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“Instead of condemning gross human rights violators, President Trump has fawned over Kim Jong Un, embraced Vladimir Putin, praised Rodrigo Duterte, looked the other way as Xi Jinping imprisons millions, and covered up for Mohammed bin Salman,” the senators write in a letter voicing “deep concern” about the commission and its leadership.

The letter organized by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also signed by several Democrats who are running for president in 2020, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

The State Department had no specific comment on the new letters, but pointed to remarks Pompeo made recently in a Washington Examiner interview in which he said that people in the United States take rights for granted "and then we start throwing around rights language about things that are rights of ours."

"One of its aims is to go back to the grounding, how our Founding Fathers thought about this," Pompeo said. "So that when we’re abroad talking about this, sharing with other countries why their behavior doesn’t conform to these understandings about how every human being should be treated, that we can talk about it with clarity and with authority."

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has faced repeated questions about whether he’s too accommodating of human rights violations by America’s partners and overly focused on protecting the rights of Christians at the expense of the more expansive view of human rights adopted in the past. His administration’s most forceful and public critique of other nations over rights has been focused on adversaries such as Iran and Cuba.

A third letter from Catholic theologians, signed by more than 110 people, also calls for the “immediate dismantling of this commission.” Their letter adds concern that the commission will be used to downplay the needs of the poor, immigrants and refugees.

“Our faith and our commitment to the principles of democracy require us to view every person on earth as a full human being,” their letter says.

Although Pompeo has described the 10-member commission as bipartisan and reflecting “various backgrounds and beliefs,” the human rights groups opposing the commission argue that almost all of them are known for “extremely conservative views.” Some of the members, who come from prestigious institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, have previously been outspoken in opposition to contraception, same-sex marriage and recognition of transgender rights.

“It’s intellectual top-cover for an effort to restrict the rights of certain people,” Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First, which organized the effort, said.

The more than 420 signatories to the letter include an array of rights and religious groups, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), Amnesty International, the United Nations Association of the USA and Oxfam International. The group also includes LGBT and reproductive rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood Federation and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The more than 235 individuals who signed include a long roster of former U.S. ambassadors and Defense Department officials, including former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olson and Susan Rice, who was former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.

Abigail Williams contributed.